When someone says an English phrase is idiomatic, how should I interpret it?

  1. Does it imply that the phrase contains an idiom?

… having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as ride herd on for "supervise")

For further definitions and more detail, see the following ELU question: What exactly is an idiom?

  1. Should I interpret “…‘idiomatic’ as a phrase that means more than the sum of its parts.”?

  2. Is it the second definition of idiomatic by Merriam-Webster?

…peculiar to a particular group, individual, or style

  1. Or does it mean that the phrase sounds very natural and native-like, as if spoken by a native speaker?

If I were to say “I am owed love” that would sound unusual but we would understand its message. However, if someone said the grammatically correct phrase “My love is not traded” that might sound weird to many speakers and its meaning, I believe, would not be immediately intuitive. One might suspect it was spoken by a non-native speaker; or someone who is particularly adventurous with the language, or, a person deliberately avoiding cliché expressions.

However, would the phrase, “My love is unrequited”, be idiomatic? The PHRASE does not contain an idiom and its meaning is easily deducible. But is it “peculiar to a group”?

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    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 21:41

6 Answers 6


I would say that an idiom is a set phrase compared to speech (speaking) or writing that is said to be idiomatic or not.

English, like all languages, is filled with idioms as defined by the OP: “- having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as ride herd on for "supervise").”

However, speech and writing is said to be idiomatic or not, if it reflects natural speech in a language. A text or speech can be said to be idiomatic or not. That refers to whether or not it sounds natural or not to a native speaker of the language in question, all other factors being equal.

Here is one paper on idiomaticity, or an explanation of what is natural sounding in a language. Typically, one says a text or speech is idiomatic or unidiomatic. idiomaticity

Whether a text or a person's speech is idiomatic or not can only be determined by speakers of a language. So, if you want to judge a person's speech, you are the authority. This sounds crazy I know. But it really isn't. The translation and interpretation professions call for judging speech and text as being idiomatic or unidiomatic as a matter of course. It's the bane of the profession.

A text or speech may or may not be idiomatic at many levels: use of words, use of tenses, collocations, incomplete or incorrect idioms, general flow, overall register (not mixing slang, colloquial and other types of expression incorrectly in a speech act) etc.

Idiomatic usage is of particular concern to translators and interpreters since they strive to make anything they are translating or interpreting sound natural in the target language.

As a recent example, one can examine the interpretation of Putin's speech by his interpreter: speech- spoken language and idiomaticity

I won't post everything, but here are some red flags re the interpreter's speech, which at times is not entirely idiomatic (not natural sounding in English).

PUTIN: If I may, |I throw in some two cents|. We talked to |Mr. President|, including this subject as well. We are aware of the stance of President Trump. I think that we |as major oil and gas power| and I think the United States is a major gas and oil power as well [...]

|Nor we are interested| in driving prices up, because it will |drain live juices from all other sectors of the economy|

  • An idiom mistake: to give one's two cents, not “throw in one's two cents” (regarding a topic).

  • Non-idiomatic usage: “nor we are interested”; “drain live juices from sectors of the economy”; missing determiner.

“Live juices” is not an idiom in English (It actually made me laugh). Not sure if this was the literal translation from Russian, or, attempting to say something like: to drain power (the juice) away from certain sector of the economy.

Juice in English can mean electrical power but it is not used in the plural except in the idiom: get one's juices flowing, which is rather slangy. But here, it really stands out as non-natural when one is listening to the text as a native English speaker.

Verb tense coupled with idiom mistake: “If I may, I will give” or “I am going to give my two cents.”

Speaking about having the ball in our court in Syria. President Trump has just mentioned that we have successfully concluded the world |football| cup. Speaking of |the football|, actually, Mr. President, I will give this ball to you and now the ball is in your court.

  • An idiom: correct: now the ball is in your court.
  • Idiomatic issues: speaking of football, not “the football”. Also, if one wants to be picky, there is a mixed metaphor here: football and tennis. I cannot judge if this existed in Putin's speech or if the interpreter fumbled the ball.

  • The interpreter needed to say: I will hit the ball to you (tennis) or I will kick the ball to you. And the ball is now yours.

Please note: Mr. Putin's counterpart is not an eloquent speaker at all. And I feel sorry for the person who had to interpret him into Russian, as often the features of Trump's speech are barely literate. However, it is idiomatic though often idiotic.

Summary: - Idioms are set phrases, such as to ride herd on; (put or have) the ball in someone's court;

  • Idiomatic text or speech is natural speech to a speaker of the language. The linguistic term is idiomaticity, but it's usually expressed in every day language as: idiomatic or non-idiomatic. A text or speech (a person speaking) might actually be completely idiomatic (natural sounding) and not even contain any idioms. Conversely, speech can be filled with idioms and if expressed incorrectly, a person's speech will sound unidiomatic.

Idiomaticity issues in text or speech can range from minor mistakes in using idioms to all kinds of other usage issues such as incorrect verb tenses, vocabulary usage, word collocations, absence of determiners, incorrect deictic usage (this or that, for example), etc. One can, determine, whether a person's speech or writing is idiomatic overall in a particular language. Interpreters and translators deal with these problems everyday. Their holy grail is always striving to be idiomatic in their translation or interpretation work.

(Note: this does not apply necessarily to literary texts, which are a bit different).

Challenge to readers who are not translators or interpreters, who therefore might not really understand the issues at stake:

How do you know to say in English "Thank God that was an easy test." rather than "Thanks God that was an easy test."? Hmm?

  • 1
    Brava, I really liked the examples you supplied. I was reading the comments on YouTube about the Russian interpreter and many Russian speakers claimed he did an awful job, he was translating every third word or so. Some said that Putin speaks too quickly and that probably threw the interpreter off.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 13:58
  • 1
    The scope of 'idiomatic' is bound by the meaning of 'idiom', not the other way 'round.
    – lly
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 0:14
  • 1
    "In this connection it should perhaps be pointed out that we must distinguish between the study of idiomaticity and the study of idioms. Idioms in the sense "opaque invariant word combinations" have been studied by theoretical linguists quite extensively, but these bona fide idioms do not contribute to the idiomaticity of a text in any important way. Presence of such idioms in a text does not necessarily make it idiomatic ; nor does their absence make it unidiomatic."citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/…
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 14:57
  • 1
    Answer accepted because you provided one link, whereas jsw29 didn't provide any. The pdf file was useful, and quick to read. But most of all, you gave very specific examples which helped me understand a lot better.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 19:13
  • @Mari-LouA Thank you for telling me what was useful. (and the bounty). :) (I pray to the rules' keepers I am not infringing too much.)
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 19:18

It is futile to try to formulate the precise criteria of being idiomatic, because the very reason for the existence of that term is to express something for which there are no precise criteria.

The first aspect of the usage of that term that should be noted is that we say that something is idiomatic only when there is an, explicit or implied, contrast with something unidiomatic. The typical uses of the term are in something like 'What you have just said is unidiomatic; the idiomatic way of expressing what you have in mind is . . .' . The term unidiomatic is, in a way, more basic; the term idiomatic means not unidiomatic.

When do we say that something is unidiomatic, then? Suppose that somebody uses words in a way that immediately, before we get the time to analyse it, strikes us as odd, awkward, as at odds with the way people normally speak, even though we understand what was intended. We then pause to think about it, trying to figure out why it strikes us so. In our heads, we survey the relevant rules of grammar, and if we discover that one of them has been violated, we say that the locution was ungrammatical. Suppose, however, that we discover no such violation. We then check whether the words have been used in accordance with their dictionary definitions, and if we discover that they haven't, we point out the mistake. Suppose, however, again, that there is no such mistake to be discovered. Yet, we still feel that something is wrong with what has been said, and other experienced speakers of the language feel the same. It is at that point in the analysis that we help ourselves to the word unidiomatic. It is a word for the deviations from the established patterns of usage, that are not violations of any definite rules of the kind that are embodied in the handbooks of grammar and dictionaries.

One cannot formulate any precise criteria for something being unidiomatic, because it is essentially a leftover category: it exists to encompass all the locutions that sound wrong, but that do not fit any other category of errors. Consequently, one cannot formulate any precise criteria for application of the contrasting term idiomatic.

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    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 21:41

There are two distinct and separate meanings of "idiomatic", and a number of fuzzy concepts in-between.

First, if given phrase (in certain contexts) has a recognized meaning that is different from the literal meanings of the component words, that phrase is considered an "idiom", and therefore something having to do with that phrase would be "idiomatic".

But, rather apart from the above, a style of language spoken/written by some group (teenagers, old farts, members of a religious cult, the population of an entire nation) is said to be "idiomatic" to that group.

Thus, my writing above is probably recognizable as "idiomatic" to the US Midwest, and would be distinct in style from the "idiomatic" writings of someone from Boston or London or Bombay. This distinction has nothing to do with the use of "idioms" in the sense first mentioned in this answer.

And when you go to discuss whether "unrequited love" is idiomatic, you need to define which definition of idiom/idiomatic you're using. If you are simply asking if it's a common expression in the writings of the referenced culture then Ngram (and other tools) will give you an answer. If you are instead asking if "unrequited love" is an idiom, the answer is no (as accurately as an answer can be given to such a question). "Unrequited love", while it has some emotional baggage, carries no meaning that is distinct from the words in the phrase.

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    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 21:40

I imagine what you are interested in is understanding more precisely what is meant when that term is used on this site.

In this context, then, your 3 and 4 fit most often. Some additional thoughts:

In our devotion to using language precisely and evocatively, and to helping others do so too, we become nitpicky. That's good. Without nitpicky people, there would be no ELU.

When we see something that doesn't sound right, and try to explain what's wrong with it, we may be able to cite a rule or point out a pattern we've noticed. For example, we could explain, the verb needs to agree with the subject, and point out which word is actually the subject (because it got a bit buried in a complex sentence).

Participants here are more or less resourceful than others in finding technical explanations for the judgments and corrections we make.

But for everyone: when we can't find a technical explanation, but our ear tells us that something isn't right, we fall back on "It's not idiomatic," and we offer a more idiomatic, or natural, expression, as an alternative.


I am responding in answer form not because I imagine I know the answer, but because it takes too many words to explain my doubt as to whether any precise answer is possible.

All language tends to be stretched over time. Take the noun ‘head’. It has a simple meaning: the thing that is stuck on the top of your neck. In French ‘tête’ in German ‘kopf’ and in Greek ‘κεφάλι’ (kephali) mean the same.

Over time, this simple word becomes ‘stretched’ to metaphorical applications. So the top or most important part of something: like the ‘head’ of an engine cylinder; or the ‘head’ of a school (in British English - in Am English that is a ‘principal’); or a ‘head’ chef in charge of a posh kitchen; or the ‘head’ of a river (meaning the source of that river).

But the word is not standardly applied to the top or the beginning of just anything. We cannot speak of the ‘head’ of a house, or of a mountain, though we do, of course speak of the ‘foot’ of a mountain (or of a tree)

So, as a word’s usage stretches, so it enters grey area between the literal and the metaphorical or idiomatic.

The word ‘head’ in English stretches even further from being a noun to being a verb - and a very strange verb. We ‘head’ into town or for the exit or for a fall. The verb is protean, changing randomly between active and passive without change of meaning.

I am heading into town and I am headed into town

mean exactly. The intransitive verb has a passive!

By now we are surely in the realm of idiom. But when exactly we crossed that threshold is far from clear. How could it be?

If I start saying ‘I am heading for thinking you are right’, a native speaker of English will certainly understand me, but will find the use of ‘head’ in this way a bit odd. If I persist, you may get used to it. But that will surely not turn it into an idiom. It would be an idiosyncrasy.

But then, what about the usages like ‘jazz idiom’? What is this? What exactly is being called an idiom? Not jazz itself. But jazz, as a form of music, is being treated as an idiomatic form of the standard language of music. But what is that standard ‘language’ that jazz ‘stretches’? Well, there isn’t one. Or rather, Western classical diatonic music is probably being treated as the standard. But even if so, what this shows is that even the word idiom can be ‘stretched’ so that idiom comes to be used idiomatically, notwithstanding the implicit bias towards classical form.

So drawing the line between idiomatic and standard English will never be easy. Even the word idiom can be used idiomatically.

None of this invalidates the excellent Merriam-Webster definition. I suspect that the widest application of the notion of idiom is to the learning of English as a foreign language. So the idea of deviation from the strict semantic and syntactic rules has obvious purchase. Native speakers learn their language through total immersion to everyday language with all its informality. A foreign language has to be much more concerned with rules and with them a notion of standard/formal and ‘stretched’/informal utterances. There are limits to how much we can acquire at a time. So our exposure will be mainly to that part of the language that conforms to the standard rules.

So far as I am aware, there is no dictionary English idiom, other than may be provided for non-native learners. So I have a book of (modern) Greek Idioms. They are the sorts of expression that do not appear in standard textbooks, but are essential if you don’t want to ‘sound like a foreigner’.

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    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 21:40

In the comments, Lawrence complained that “Definition 1 is pretty much just saying that an idiom is idiomatic.” Well, that is all that “idiomatic” means:

When is a phrase idiomatic?

When it concerns or is related to an idiom.

That’s all and only what it is or will ever mean, definitionally.

Now, contrary to most of the answers so far, there is not only one definition of that word. Per the OED, it comes through French and Latin from Koine Greek ἰδίωμα (idíōma, “pecularity”), from Ancient Greek ἴδιος (ídios, “one’s own, personal”) and -ωμα (-ōma), a suffix used to form neuter nouns in the manner of English “-ing” or “-ness.” Since the Hellenistic Greeks were the great rhetorical teachers of Republican Rome, the word has been particularly associated with particular speaking styles from antiquity, first regarding the tics of individual orators and later the turns of phrase favored by particular peoples or languages.

In order of appearance in English, “idiom” has meant

  • The specific character... of a language; the manner of expression considered... distinctive of a language; a language's distinctive phraseology.

  • A language... the distinctive form of speech of a particular people or country... a dialect or variety of a language; a form of a language... distinctive of a particular area, category of people, period of time, or context.

  • A specific form, manifestation, nature, or property of something... (Theology) a property of Christ as either human or divine...

  • A form of expression, grammatical construction, phrase, etc... used in a distinctive way in a particular language, dialect, or language variety; spec. a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words.

  • A distinctive style or convention in music, art, architecture, writing, etc.; the characteristic mode of expression of a composer, artist, author, etc.

Now, the 5th of those are what us English mavens think of first when we hear someone talking about “idioms” but if we’re actually mavens we should know those other senses exist.

I suppose you do already know that and just want a paper trail for why @User070221 was so wrong with the way he was using the word. The thing is, as discussed there, the use of “unrequited” to refer to unreturned emotions is probably not even figurative and certainly not idiomatic in any way: it’s not particular to English or any idiolect of English in any meaningful way, any more than all English words are particular to the English language by virtue of their definition as “English words.” That tautological sense was not the one intended by User070221: s/he meant that there was some particular and special association between “unrequited” and “love.” But again there isn’t: there’s no particular reference to unreturned love beyond the word’s basic definition, which describes any unreciprocated emotion. People use that word because it’s the word with that meaning, not because of any special particular association.

To actually qualify as “idiomatic,” the usage thus needs to concern

  • ...the forms of expression, grammatical constructions, phrases, etc. used in a distinctive way in a particular language, dialect, or language variety, formerly especially those considered nonstandard or colloquial. Now usually spec.: established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words.

  • ...the manner of expression considered natural to or distinctive of a language; typically using idioms.

  • [things] Distinctive of one person, individual; idiosyncratic. [But this sense’s currently obsolete.]

  • ... a distinctive style of music, art, architecture, etc.; characteristic of the mode of artistic expression of a particular period, place, individual, or group.

Lambie’s excellent examples of translation error do good work drawing a boundary. The various particular errors of this one particular translator could be considered their own idiom, but his phrasing is not idiomatic English.

A perfect translator would recreate the idiomatic expressions of the source language appropriately in the target language, with special attention to an intended register or nuance. In the Russian example, Putin was presumably using several informal, allusive, and figurative turns of phrase concerning soccer that the translator did his best to include. Since they came close enough for us to see what they were trying for but failed to pull it off, we don’t see it as idiomatic English or Russian but as bad translation... except for “as major oil and gas power.” That mistaken lost article is a quintessential aspect of Russian dialect and is exactly the kind of idiomatic speech pattern a comedian imitating a Russian translator would include to add Russian flavor.

So tl;dr?

Idiomatic phrases are peculiar but not wrong.

JSW29 is right that that’s pretty nebulous, but wrong that it’s “leftover” or inexplicable. It’s just nebulous because different groups set their boundaries on those two ideas at different places.

In the case of the translator, “throw in some two cents” is wrong because we know what they were aiming for and feel they failed; “as major oil and gas power” doesn’t feel wrong but Russian, because we’ve come to expect that particular mistake (or way of speaking) from Russians. Using “whom” in spoken English is actually highly idiomatic (peculiar to a few SNOOTs) but doesn’t feel idiomatic to most native speakers (who themselves nearly universally “who” in most constructions) because they’ve internalized from their Language Arts classes that they’re the informal, slightly mistaken ones and the Platonic form of the English language somewhere in the Aether properly distinguishes the the subjective and objective forms of its interrogative and relative personal pronoun. Instead, they take their “common mistake” to be the idiomatic form. Meanwhile, saying “I’m a Chinese” is just wrong: you’re just Chinese or a Chinese student/ person/ elephant/ something. On the other hand, you’ve got a population of ESL speakers greater—by almost a factor of 2—than the combined population of the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and every other Commonwealth realm. They really want to be able to say 中国人 as a noun, have teachers and tests that don’t consider “a Chinese” wrong, and can point to the OED for how the word was formerly often countable. Just like “long time, no see,” did a century ago and “Beijing roast duck” is currently doing, nonstandard speech can go from wrong to idiomatic to standard as more and more English-speakers hear and accommodate themselves first to others using it and then to their children or even themselves using it.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 28, 2018 at 21:40

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